Women’s Voices Must Be Heard: The Hidden Lives of Female Refugees in Libya

Radio Erena: 09 December 2020

Despite women making up an estimated 10 percent of the refugees and migrants in Libya, their voices are frequently left out of the conversation. Language is the largest barrier; displaced women are less likely than their male counterparts to have completed their education, therefore, few women in the community are comfortable communicating in English. As a result, male translators – whether they are husbands, friends, or organizational staff – mediate discussions about women’s experiences. Stigmas in Libyan society about female autonomy mean women are kept in the home and become entirely reliant on men in the community to meet their basic survival needs, creating access issues and exacerbating risk-factors for violence.

Speaking with Selam*, an Eritrean woman who has lived in Libya for the past three years as an asylum seeker, these issues become clear as day. She lives in Tripoli today but describes a life of captivity. “There is no work, no freedom, it’s like a prison. Two years ago I was a prisoner. Now that I’ve come out, I am still in a prison, it’s like the same. This life is no different.”

For her first year in Libya, smugglers held Selam captive as she waited for her chance to cross the sea. But when that opportunity came, she was intercepted by the Libyan authorities who brought her to the police station for holding. After a month and a half, she was transferred to another station, where a misunderstanding with the officers led them to lock her and her fellow refugees underground for three weeks as punishment. During those three weeks, militia fighting broke out and the police fled, leaving them alone. Luckily, Selam and the others managed to break free from their underground cell. But she was not in the streets long before the police rounded them up again, this time sending them to one of the country’s 11 official detention centers. These facilities are known for rampant neglect and abuse, food and water shortages, and a severe lack of sanitation. They are also places where women and men alike are subject to sexual abuse. In the detention center where Selam was held, when it came time for evacuations organized by UNHCR, only half of the women were taken and she was left behind.

Selam did make her way to Tripoli with a small group of women. But things did not get better. “We live without hope… You know, here there are no jobs, no treatment for medical issues, no help for rent and other needs,” she explains.

Two and a half years after being registered by UNHCR, she has lost hope for resettlement and lives her life trapped inside a small apartment. Because she is a Christian woman, it is dangerous for her to be caught on the street by police or gangs. “If you say you are Christian they are shooting with guns. If you say Muslim they tell you to read the Qur’an. I know how to speak Arabic but I can’t read and write it.” Because of this danger, she cannot work, or even go out to run errands. She and the rest of the women in her situation are therefore entirely reliant on their husbands – or neighbors if a woman is unmarried – for their basic survival. The men do all of the shopping and bring money for rent when they are fortunate enough to find day-labor. There is no running water in the apartment compound where they live, so even Selam’s drinking water must be brought by her husband from a nearby mosque. Women cannot gather with one another to forge social connections and rebuild the communal support structures they once had back home in Eritrea. “You can’t get together even to chat…. Even on the street if you are going 3 or 4 [women], they are kicking and hitting you.”

Married women have some protection inside the home when they are with their husbands, but single women are at a heightened risk of break-ins by thieves and gangs. “The thieves are coming and stealing all your things. Your food, your phone, your money. They are wearing soldier uniforms to look like police. Even they have heavy guns.”

Selam was unsure how many of the asylum-seeking women in Libya experience domestic violence because of the difficulty in organizing women together for communal support. However, these conditions that trap women in the home under tremendous economic and social pressure are known to increase risk factors. According to estimates from the World Health Organization, 1 in 3 women worldwide have experienced some form of physical or sexual violence – either from a partner or non-partner – and conflict, displacement, and severe stress are known to exacerbate incidences of violence.

Accessing services also becomes a challenge in this setting. UNHCR advertises a hotline where asylum seekers can call for information but there are many who complain the number is rarely answered. With limited mobility and lack of access to the agency by phone, this makes access incredibly difficult. Even when they do get called for an appointment, there is little that can be done to help them. Women with children may be able to get some soap, food, and other small items for the children, but UNHCR Libya does not currently offer rent assistance.

Like most of the people seeking asylum in Libya, Selam has started to lose hope. She reflects on her past, explaining that her mother became a soldier in Eritrea’s war for independence at just 12 years old. During a battle, she was shot in the head and transported to the hospital, where she met Selam’s father who had also been injured in the line of duty. They married and started a family, but the damage to her mother’s brain functions caused her to lash out with fits of anger. As a result, her parents separated after just a few years. She and her mother were left alone together, and eventually, Selam’s mother pushed her away too, out into the streets. She lived with neighbors and had to drop out of school to work and earn money to support herself. But that meant she also did not finish her schooling in the Sawa military school, as every young Eritrean is forced to do, and she did not continue on to indefinite lifelong conscription in the army. So in 2009, the police came to arrest her and bring her to prison.

Selam fled Eritrea to escape the prison and lifelong servitude. She spent almost 4 years in a refugee camp in Ethiopia, and then another 4 years in Sudan. But everywhere she went, Selam was denied her basic safety and freedom. So in 2017, she came to Libya, hoping to reach Europe where she could finally be safe. But this leg of her journey has been harder than she could have imagined.

“For 11 years, I [have been] living without any solution. But now, here in Libya, I am living without hope.”

*Name has been changed to protect her identity

By Andrea Gagne:- Human rights activist. Documenting the lives of refugees in Libya.